US Department of Interior, Secretary Ken Salazar, with members of the Youth Conservation Corps. Image credit:Jackie Ostfeld, Sierra Club staff.
This scares me: Kids get outside 50% less today than they did 20 years ago, and if they're not being taught to explore, enjoy, and protect wilderness and wildlife habitat - then who will take that on 20 years from now? Who will fight for protections in courtrooms and Congress?
Turns out that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is bothered by this situation, too. That's why on Monday, when the Obama administration - led by the First Lady - rolled out United We Serve, Salazar set up an event involving members of the Youth Conservation Corps, Student Conservation Association, NPS employees, and Virginia's first lady Anne Holton.The Sierra Club was invited along as well.
United We Serve is a nationwide initiative that encourages Americans to get out and volunteer this summer, whether it's serving food at homeless shelters, building playgrounds for low-income children, or building and maintaining mountain trails.
We have a program called Building Bridges to the Outdoors in which we work with, and provide grants to, organizations that get underserved kids outside, like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago, Girl Scouts of Northern California, the Eco Club at LA's Crenshaw High School, and others.
Last year these partnerships got 70,000 kids into the outdoors whom, it's likely, would not have gotten there any other way.
I talked to our Building Bridges youth representative Jackie Ostfeld about what it was like to be there with Salazar during Monday's United We Serve event. Wearing jeans and sneakers, Jackie headed to Shenandoah National Park where she rolled up the sleeves of her Sierra Club polo shirt and pulled invasive plant species with Salazar, who donned his ever-present cowboy hat - except for a brief moment when an NPS employee convinced him to swap.
Shenandoah, in Virginia, is a two hour drive from Washington, D.C., and those gathered endeavored to clear a patch of the park called Big Sky Meadows of Oriental lady's finger, garlic mustard, and Japanese stiltgrass.
"One of Secretary Salazar's top goals at the Interior Department is to build a robust 21st century Youth Conservation Corps, getting young people out to work on public lands," Jackie said.
"I talked to some of them while we were yanking non-native plants out by the roots," she said. "They told me that while some of their friends aren't outdoorsy and don't want to get dirty, they, on the other hand, felt that if they were going to take a minimum-wage job, they'd much rather be outside, getting fresh air and helping national parks, than flipping burgers in a fast-food joint."
Salazar was querying the hard-working Corps members about how his department can engage their friends in its mission. "It was cool to see him interacting with youth and taking this issue so seriously," said Jackie. "He understands how important it is that we connect these kids with nature."
Salazar also noted the economic benefit of getting young people working:
"We are facing the toughest of economic times since the Great Depression," he said. "What you are seeing here were a number of people, great volunteers and young people, all coming together saying that we are going to be part of the solution for America."
During the United We Serve summer of service, the Sierra Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors program will be calling on its partners to host organize service events and register them on the Obama administration's serve.gov searchable online database. The types of events we've already got going include:
In Northern Arizona, The Sierra Club's Environmental Justice program will be working with the Hopi to restore ancient trails and springs in preparation for the annual Hopi "Water is Life" Run.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, volunteers will help clean up the popular San Antonio canyon by picking up trash and clearing graffiti left along the San Antonio Creek.
In NE Tennessee, The Sierra Club Water Sentinels program's Watauga group is hosting their 2nd annual Fishing Day for Kids and Grand-Folks, aimed at getting children and adults out into nature to experience the fun of fishing and to learn about the importance of clean water.
In Colinsville, Illinois, near St. Louis, Sierra Club activists will be hosting a computer and electronic recycling drive to encourage all residents to dispose of the old electronics responsibly.
Throughout West Virginia, Sierra Club activists will be working to help improve and maintain important Appalachian trails.
It's important to get young people outdoors and active.You've got the whole summer ahead of you—how will you help out?
More kids 'n nature posts.
Outdoor Industry Pledges to Take Kids Back to Nature
Raising Environmentally-Conscious Kids
Military Kids Find Time at Camp A Cure for Nature Deficit Disorder ...
Nature Deficit Disorder Tackled at Camp Filled with Power Tools ...